Inviting the World In or Self-Care?

I’ve stupidly invited the outside world in.

From phys.org
From phys.org

I needed the distraction, I thought. I needed to being so self-centred and fascinated by my own navel, my petty little worries, my anxiety about the next few months.

People who refuse to engage with the reality around them, who retreat to their ivory towers, are despicable. Or so we thought back in the days just after the fall of Communism, when we were ashamed that there were so few dissident Romanian writers compared to those in Russia or Poland or Czechoslovakia.

So I opened up the doors and, instead of switching off the internet at night, I now check it during those long nights when I cannot sleep. I let the world in, with its mad melee of cacophonous sounds and barking, lies and ridicule, entrenched positions, animosity, rabid language and ugliness. I cannot unsee it now. And I am frightened. I feel like a small boat buffeted by shrieking winds and roaring waves, skin sliced open by hailstorms, head ready to rip open, a driftwood swollen to unnatural proportions.

I still function perfectly well on the outside: no one who has ever worked with me would believe I suffer from constant, if low-level, anxiety and depression. However, the toll of this ‘ability to muddle through’ is quite high at times and I wonder how much more of this constant assault on the senses (including common-sense) one can take. When you wake up daily to heated debates about crowd sizes, border walls, banning Muslims, the efficacy of torture, making Britain global again while keeping those nasty cockroaches like myself out… how long before you start accepting it as the inevitable status quo? How long before your health and mind starts to give up?

There is no doubting the impact it has had on my writing already. I struggle with prose, while the poetry I produce feels uncouth, full of sludge and invectives. My lack of productivity may not be a great loss to the world, but I wonder how many other artists and writers (far above my level) are struggling too.

For those who say that great literature was produced by dissidents, there is some truth in that. However, that usually happened during the periods of relative stability following the mass shifts, when the despair of ‘nothing will ever change for the better’ started to kick in. We will never quite know how many more fell into silence. As Akhmatova says:

And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me…

I realised only recently that I gave up any form of creative writing during the other period of my life (from 1991-94 onwards), when I felt the same level of rootlessness, anxiety and despair at humanity. I blamed it on academic work, moving abroad, then joining the corporate huddled masses and the magic roundabout of marriage and children, but it all started before that, when I became distressed by the collapse of hope in a democracy that wouldn’t be equated with wild, rampant, cruel capitalism. My ‘escape’ back then was Cambridge and the friends I made there, and Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

But at the time, it was only one portion of the world that seemed to be going mad. Now the lunacy is engulfing the whole world. I stopped writing for 20 years then. I just hope it won’t be that long again now.

nocive

P. S. The examples of animal friendship and compassion in the current BBC documentary series ‘Spy in the Wild’ help a little, while simultaneously making me wonder if animals are not superior to humans.

On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.

 

Lessons Learnt from Submissions

I’ve been pushing myself to submit more this year, particularly poetry (since I write so much of it anyway). I’ve submitted to ten literary journals or competitions this half year (which is a big improvement to the 5 I did for all of 2013).

round-yes-no-buttonsAnd here’s what’s happened with these ten:

6 rejections

1 rejection with a very encouraging message

1 poem longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize

1 acceptance (two out of the three poems I sent) – I am sure I will crow about it once they are published!

1 still waiting to hear

One good thing about this process is that I am starting to take rejections much more stoically. The first one back in March or so was like salt and pepper being rubbed into an open wound and knocked me out for 2 days (going on two weeks). The latest one arrived tonight and I just shrugged it off and said blithely to my husband: ‘Oh, look, darling, another rejection!’

Another discovery is that there is no such thing as a good or bad poem (well, other than the obviously dire ones, which I hope mine aren’t). It’s all a matter of personal taste, timing, fit with the journal’s philosophy etc. The poem that was rejected by one journal was the one that was longlisted by judge Ruth Padel. One of the poems that has now been accepted had been rejected elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is that the obvious sayings are still the best: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, tweak and try again!’

 

This is…

Not the life I wanted to lead

Not your average day of loopy well-being

Not the family I recognize as brethren

Not the word I dreamt up flowing from pen, blood and heart

Not the tensile stretch of muscle used in utmost longing, reach to beyond

No picture-book happiness of domesticity tamed

No anger or despair allowed to creep in

Save in the tumble – a little too loud – of ice cubes in a glass

as soon as cocktail hour will allow.

Fall into the flab of inane self-expression

with hiccup, giggle and gin.

Photo credit: cocktailbuzz.blogspot.com
Photo credit: cocktailbuzz.blogspot.com

 

Join me for Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub, the friendliest online poetry forum.  Drinking or writing a poem about drinking is not strictly compulsory, though.  

 

 

Feed Me

What I want and what I need

what I want to want

and what I think I want

are different

and changed again.

 

Praise sandwiched in snide greens  I can deal with.

But praise unbound leaps and gags the wary mind.

 

So feed me:

News in small digested parcels.

Awe in sane confects I can see and understand.

Joy in self-contained units, allotments of peace.

Lust in sanitised tray with neat compartments.

Change in easy gulps, fear in whispered inklings.

 

Feed me when the world turns colder.

Don’t open what I cannot bear.

Close the door, the draughts, the weather…

I fear ‘too much’, I crave no more.